A few days ago – during the closing press conference for the Cannes Film Festival – Jessica Chastain spoke about her perturbation regarding the portrayal of women in cinema. She cited the representation of female characters she had witnessed during screenings as ‘disturbing’.
“This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days, and I love movies. And the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that I saw represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest, with some exceptions. For the most part I was surprised with the representation of female characters on screen in these films. ”
“I do hope that when we include more female storytellers we will have more of the women that I recognise in my day-to-day life. Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to men around them…they have their own point of view.”
Hollywood does create films aimed at women, but rather than being radical, challenging societal norms or featuring the ‘proactive‘ women who ‘have their own agencies‘ whom Jessica mentions, they are usually ‘chick’ post-feminist creations; ones in which the female protagonist delights in “feminine” activities such as tending to their appearance, shopping, obsessing over her body and chasing after men. (Think Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sex and The City, My Best Friend’s Wedding etc) These popular ‘chick flicks’ usually have the same recurring themes and perpetuate harmful tropes about what it means to be female – usually through the eyes of a male director. They attempt to be “empowering” by featuring a female star who is usually a working professional; a sassy career women who expresses herself through consumer culture and can make any impending doom in her personal life vanish with the solution of a makeover – which usually wins over the man whom she is inevitably chasing after for the whole film, her ultimate end goal.
The Bechdel test (1985), named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel and credited to her friend Liz Wallace, requires you to ask whether a work of fiction features (1) two women (2) who talk to each other, and (3) about something other than a man.
The test is used to indicate the active presence of females in film and other works of fiction, and to call to awareness gender inequality in such examples. Try using the Bechdel test on any popular ‘chick flick’ or recent Hollywood creation, and you’ll be suprised at how many fail to meet the requirements. It’s not just Chastain who cries out for films featuring female protagonists who ‘don’t just react to men around them and have their own point of view, it’s seemingly an issue of endless misrepresentation that many women want drastically revised. We are tired of seeing an interpretation of what being ‘female’ is through the eyes of a male, and we cannot relate to the recurring two-dimensional characters who usually embody a kind of feminine ‘ideal’ which reduces ‘girlishness’ to a way of dressing and a way of acting. There are no set rules that determine what being ‘female’ is – yet the female characters we see on the silver screen would have us believe there are – and failure to adhere to these rules can often make us feel alienated from our own gender.
I recently re-watched My Best Friend’s Wedding on Netflix. I hadn’t seen it in years, and was in the mood to watch something that Father Ted would refer to as ‘Chewing gum for the brain.’ My Best Friend’s Wedding is certainly a film that fails the Bechdel test miserably (among other things it culminates in the characters played by Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz having a very public fight over a man in a public bathroom), but more worryingly Julia Roberts’ character has just turned 28, and Diaz – the woman her ‘best friend’ is marrying – is supposed to be 20. It was a detail I certainly missed as a kid, but viewing as an adult I couldn’t believe how ridiculous and unrealistic it was. There seems to be a rule in Hollywood that implies from the age of 18-30 a woman is desirable and at her prime – but once she reaches her thirties or has kids – she just disappears or looses her value or worth. I sometimes feel an immense pressure to pursue success while I am a ‘young’ woman, which is in part not helped by the fact that mass media usually views women who have surpassed their youth sell-by-date as obsolete – and her life experiences as not worth telling.
In contrast, I saw an interview on Graham Norton which featured Micheal Caine and Morgan Freeman – who are 84 and 79 respectively – both highly revered for their talents and just as relevant today in their old age. I was marveling at their achievements when I suddenly felt sad. I could think of far more active older male actors than I could female ones, and realised that roles are continually made that allow these male actors to live out a full and varying career – a path that a female actor of the same ability would fall short on – as the dynamic roles that compliment whatever age she is simply aren’t being created. She is fobbed off for the younger face; the girl who can dutifully play the part of ‘woman as told by man’ in the next blockbuster chick flick and the potential stories about women of all ages – whom we ‘recognise in our day to day life’ – go on not being told.
What is the remedy for this huge shortcoming in media and film? Well, it’s you. Do not wait for the tides to change – for although the Cannes award for Best Screenplay went to Lynne Ramsay for her crime thriller ‘You Were Never Really Here’ and my favourite director Sofia Coppola won Best Director for her film ‘The Beguiled’ – Coppola was only the second woman in the festival’s history to win that title after Yuliya Solntseva in 1961. Saddest of all, Jane Campion is the only female director to ever win the Palme d’Or in the whole seventy years the festival has been active. There are just as many talented female creators out there as there are male, so statistics like these just shouldn’t exist. If you are interested in writing or film or acting and want to see a bigger and more accurate representation of women in film, you need to be the change you want to see. Start writing. Encourage your friends to do the same. Too often we are told ‘women aren’t funny’ or we can be made to feel like our stories aren’t worth telling because they do not fit into the categories of the traditional feminine ‘ideal’ perpetuated on our screens. We need to push through the oppressive deterrents and create those untold stories that women of any age can watch and think ‘That is just like me. I do exist’ – rather than allowing a male dominated industry to roll the dice and come up with the same pink, rhinestone, body-conscious, man-chasing number, again and again. (If you are female and you enjoy pink and rhinestones and chasing boys, there is obviously no harm in that, but the point is not all women can say they feel the same, and they rarely see that represented.)
I highly suggest you check out Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary ‘Miss Representation’ which is in the Netflix catalogue and “…explores how mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in influential positions by circulating limited and often disparaging portrayals of women.” It’s a powerful, stark watch and I guarantee it’ll only fire up your motivation to change things more.
There is so much power in watching something and thinking ‘me too’. Let’s never settle for allowing any one tireless trope decide what it is to be woman. Always challenge what undermines you, always acknowledge the stories of all women, always write the story you want to see. People will put you in a box if you let them, so it’s time to kick our way out of the fucking box.
– Aisling Abbey